1993, the middle of nowhere in Illinois, probably at Happy Joe’s
I’m 9 years old and having to endure yet another pizza party. I say endure because I grew up as a picky eater. A picky eater to the point that I would never consider consuming a slice of pizza, which meant a sense of dread on pizza day in the cafeteria and politely picking at pizza crust that I had discreetly wiped clean of any trace of that oregano-laced red sauce while at friends’ birthday parties. I wistfully looked down at the sad slice on my plate, wishing it would magically turn into a hot dog.
You see, hot dogs have always been my favorite food. Eaten cold from the fridge, nuked until warm in the microwave, or grilled until nearly blackened and snuggled up in a bun—no matter the preparation, or lack thereof, I loved them. And when you grow up persnickety enough to turn your nose up at pizza, you find comfort in those select few foods that please your palate.
Instead of pizza parties, my September birthday was always celebrated with a good old fashioned weenie roast. Nothing beats the crackly exterior of a perfectly charred hot dog or that first bite that hits your tastebuds with salty, sweet, and tangy flavors from the juicy dog dressed with ketchup and mustard. The smoky aroma of burning wood never fails to trigger a hot dog craving, even as the weenie roasts of my youth are but a distant memory.
2002, still in the middle of nowhere in Illinois, my hometown Dairy Queen
Despite being a lifelong hot dog enthusiast, I had never experienced a chili cheese dog. That is, until I somehow ended up manning the grill—or Brazier, if you want to get specific—at my local Dairy Queen as an after-school job in high school. This was the old school kind of Dairy Queen, not unlike this lone wolf store in Minnesota, where we still did things by hand and had an array of menu items that didn’t exist in most other markets. Tuesdays were Chili Cheese Dog Day and I was slinging those bad boys out faster than I could keep count each week. During a lull on a brisk autumn afternoon, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
Having never had a hot dog topped with anything other than ketchup and mustard, or maybe the occasional layer of pickles if I was feeling particularly intrepid, this chili cheese topping was a gamechanger. If there was ever a gateway food that opened my mind to trying new things, I’m pretty sure the chili cheese dog was it for me. Soon I was dunking my fries in chili and cheese sauce that dripped off the messy-but-delectable dog and another obsession was born—what better companion for a hot dog than cheese fries? I was smitten.
2003, Chicago, Wrigleyville Dogs
I made the big move from the middle of nowhere in Illinois to the big city of Chicago after I graduated high school. Having visited the city plenty throughout childhood, I primarily associated the city with my least favorite food, pizza. The deep dish slabs that are served up in tourist-filled outposts across the city were even less appetizing than their thin-crust brethren that I had grown up avoiding, and I was admittedly a little concerned about finding a hot dog haunt to fulfill my cravings.
I clearly neglected to do my homework in that regard.
During one of my first adventures in the city, my new friends and I made the pilgrimage up to Wrigley Field because we were 19 years old and there wasn’t much else to do other than riding the rails with no specific destination in mind and calling it an “adventure” to discover new neighborhoods. After seeing the ballpark in all its majesty, we decided we needed to eat. Bars galore surrounded us, almost as if to taunt our hungry underage selves, as well as a few fast food joints, but I spotted something in the distance. It was a hot dog stand. A glorious bright yellow hot dog stand with a hodge podge of food photos and signs lining the windows and interior. The menu was full of things I had never heard of, like pizza puffs and gyros! But I was there for one reason, and one reason only. I wanted a hot dog.
I eagerly ordered two hot dogs and cheese fries and tucked into one of the sterile, cold booths that somehow felt just like home. I strode up to the counter to claim my encased meat feast, only to look down and see a veritable salad perched atop my dogs. You see, I had never heard of a Chicago dog and was admittedly a bit flummoxed by what had just been served to me.
But I learned from the chili cheese dog that I should be more open-minded about trying new foods, so I grabbed the hefty hot dog with both hands, stuck my elbows out in a type of power eating stance, and dug in. The combination of the snappy Vienna beef dog slathered in sharp mustard, savory celery salt, sweet tomato, tangy relish and tart but crisp dill pickle was the best thing I had ever eaten. The warm link juxtaposed with the cool accoutrement was unexpected, but delicious. I couldn't stop chowing down.
If the chili cheese dog was my gateway dog, the Chicago dog was my Holy Grail.
I still live in Chicago and I’m still a little bit picky, but I have spent the last 12 years indulging in a whole slew of different kinds of dogs throughout the city and beyond. Chicago’s other signature, the Depression Dog, has earned a warm spot in my heart for its no-frills perfection. I happily brave the bitter Chicago winter and head to a drive-in just to enjoy my beloved Superdawg. And yes, the food is always piping hot and scrumptious, even when it’s 4 degrees outside.
When I travel, I make it a point to try regional delicacies like the elaborate Sonoran hot dog, the simple-but-satisfying Dodger Dog, the classic Coney Dog, and, of course, a New York dog. (Sorry, New York. My heart belongs to the Chicago-style.)
I even have a hot dog tattoo. That's dedication.
And while I will always remain true to the frank and bun combo, a growing trend in the restaurant industry is using links as ingredients in some seriously gluttonous fast food creations. Another trend shows higher end eateries hopping on the hot dog bandwagon with classy takes on this pedestrian staple.
So here’s to my favorite food that ultimately helped me kick my picky habits. While today may be the official National Hot Dog Day, I’d like to think that I honor the humble hot dog all year long.